This is another in a series examining the Steelers' roster on a position-by-position basis as we count down the days to the opening of the team's 2015 training camp at Saint Vincent College.
With regards to its method of building an offensive line, the Steelers have come full circle.
In the early 2000s, the Steelers offensive line was composed of two No. 1 picks in Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons, a No. 2 pick in Marvel Smith, and an unrestricted free agent signing who originally entered the league as a No. 1 pick in Jeff Hartings. When third-round pick Max Starks joined the unit on the team that won Super Bowl XL, the Steelers had themselves a group that was high-pedigree and highly paid.
In the second half of that decade, the Steelers seemed to have chosen to shop in the bargain bins for offensive linemen. Starks still was around, but he was joined by a No. 4 pick from Hofstra in Willie Colon, a sixth-round pick from Utah in Chris Kemoeatu, an undrafted rookie in Darnell Stapleton, and a veteran free agent picked up after being cut in Justin Hartwig, a player who himself had entered the league as a sixth-round draft pick. That was the group that started in Super Bowl XLIII.
The trend began to swing back the other way when the Steelers used a first-round pick in 2010 on Maurkice Pouncey, and when he showed himself to be better than everyone else before his rookie training camp even was two weeks old, maybe that was what re-convinced the team of the importance in investing in its offensive line. Today, the top seven players on the roster include two first-round picks (Pouncey and David DeCastro), and two second-round picks (Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams). Add in Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round pick in the same draft that brought DeCastro and Adams (pictured above), and it's easy to see how the Steelers have changed course.
With players due to report to Saint Vincent College one week from today for the start of training camp, the status of the Steelers' offensive line is it's in better shape than it has been, but there remains room for improvement.
Because the average age of the presumed starters is 26.4 years, this group should be among the younger ones in the NFL, and it's also one that has done its growing up together. Ramon Foster is the elder statesman as the left guard, and he is only 29 and joined the team in 2009. Pouncey came in 2010, Gilbert in 2011, DeCastro, Adams, and Beachum in 2012. Cody Wallace signed as a free agent pickup in 2013. And Mike Munchak was hired as the unit's coach in 2014.
If the overall production of the offense is the measuring stick, the line had a nice year in 2014, certainly better than it fared in the previous couple of years, and one of the significant factors was stability. Beachum, Pouncey, and DeCastro all started 16 games at their respective positions. Foster missed two games, and he was replaced by Wallace both times; Gilbert missed four games and was replaced by Adams each time. That stability allowed the younger players to mature and the unit to jell.
The kind of stability that's achieved from the combination of consistent individual play and good health again will be a key for this unit, but the same argument can be made for most NFL offensive lines. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers' top seven offensive linemen from 2014 all return, and at least for the start of training camp the top seven all will return in the same roles they occupied last season. But because injuries are a factor of life in the NFL, even seven offensive linemen might not be enough to get a team through an entire season.
So where will the Steelers find their 2015 depth along the offensive line? And how many spots will they allocate for it?
Last season the Steelers opened with nine offensive linemen on their 53-man roster, and the group included three tackles (Beachum, Gilbert, Adams), three guards (Foster, DeCastro, Chris Hubbard), two centers (Pouncey, Wallace), and rookie Wesley Johnson, who was a backup at all five positions. Eight of the aforementioned nine players will be at Saint Vincent College when camp opens on July 25, and the coaching staff will be searching for another Johnson, who was lost to the New York Jets in a careless in-season roster move that had exposed him to waivers.
The competition for roster spots will come from tackles Alejandro Villanueva, Kevin Whimpey, and Mitchell Van Dyke, plus interior linemen Reese Dismukes, Miles Dieffenbach, and B.J. Finney.
Versatility will be valued, as will durability. Villanueva is an interesting story as a captain in the United States Army, with whom he serves as an Army Ranger who did three tours of duty in Afghanistan. Finney will be remembered as the Steelers fan who's getting a chance to play for his favorite team. And Dieffenbach is certain to be described early as a bargain as an undrafted rookie because he's a guy whose draft stock was ruined by a serious knee injury sustained during spring practice of his senior season.
But once the pads go on at Saint Vincent College, none of that will matter in the least. Mike Tomlin and Mike Munchak aren't interested in storylines, only the kind of day in and day out dependability that leads to improvement on the practice field. Training camps are a grind, and for those players looking to crack the 53-man roster from the bottom of the depth chart, being on the field every day for practice is a necessity.
And in the end, the Steelers figure to open the 2015 season with eight offensive linemen. Maybe nine, but most probably eight.
TOMORROW: Special teams